Graham Peacock discusses the harmful effects of paranoia and its recent political history.
There’s a picture of the artist David Wojnarowicz taken in 1988 at the height of the HIV crisis that feels particularly poignant to me in the current climate. In it, Wojnarowicz, seen from behind, wears a customised denim jacket emblazoned with the words: “IF I DIE OF AIDS — FORGET BURIAL — JUST DROP MY BODY ON THE STEPS OF THE FDA”. No longer an artist, a writer, a queer rights campaigner, or even a human being, Wojnarowicz is reduced to a nameless, faceless victim — a statistic-in-waiting.
The picture connotes impending tragedy: an inevitability rather than a possibility — Wojnarowicz would eventually die from AIDS-related complications in 1992. The picture connotes resentment towards an apathetic government and their indifferent response to thousands of deaths. Most importantly, though, the picture connotes paranoia: the warranted paranoia of an expectant victim, as well as the paranoia of an invisible but wholly present other — us. Whether you were a complacent government official, a scientist, a doctor, a gay man, a straight man, a mother, a drug user, or a religious fanatic, paranoia had infected everyone by the end of the 1980s.
HIV, the pathogen which causes AIDS, is a retrovirus: it inserts a copy of its genome into the host cell in order to replicate. It then weakens the immune system over time, leaving you vulnerable to opportunistic diseases, such as cancer. Covid-19 is a respiratory viral disease: highly contagious and largely affecting an individual’s breathing passages. They are two distinct viruses. There’s little to be gained from comparing the statistics of these different pandemics. The disproportionate number of COVID-19-related deaths in the BAME community in no way makes the disproportionate number of AIDS-related deaths among the LGBTQ+ community more palatable. The slow response from a government in the early 80s in no way normalises the slow response of our government in 2020. Organising the facts brings little closure. But what it does do, perhaps, is highlight a common thread that runs through both cases; exposes a separate disease that runs parallel with the others; not killing or causing physical harm — at least not directly — but which nevertheless impedes a clear path towards handling a virus. hat common thread is paranoia.
Paranoia is a sickness; a reminder of our fragility. And unlike a virus, whose grip ebbs and flows, which is eradicated or contained, paranoia is ever-present. It cannot be treated with antibiotics. There is no vaccine. Our elected officials are not immune. It was paranoia of a No-Deal Brexit, for example, that all but stopped committee meetings for pandemic planning and replaced them with discussions on how to protect a threatened economy. Paranoia had made hypothetical scenarios inevitable and deadly viruses unlikely. Paranoia became an easy scapegoat when panic did set in: when warnings from scientists arrived on the door of Westminster, and a district in China with a population double that of Scotland went into lockdown. Everything was under control. The threat to the UK was “low”. Britain was “well prepared”. In other words: stop overreacting. Before we had seen our first ICU submission, fear and denial had taken hold. And, of course, a similar problem arose in the mid-80s. Reagan in America and Thatcher in Britain, two conservative leaders of countries that had only partially decriminalised homosexuality, feared the consequences of acknowledging the victims of what was still being referred to as the “gay plague”. Thatcher would go so far as to attempt to block public health warnings about AIDS. In both cases, fear and delusion resulted in the unnecessary death of countless individuals.
Staying at home, washing your hands, and social distancing are not examples of paranoia. NHS workers fearing for their lives are not suffering from delusion. It is them who first come to mind when I look at the picture of Wojnarowicz, those whose coworkers have been reconstituted as martyrs by the same government responsible for their deaths. Paranoia is behaviour that so frequently, so blatantly, goes against the evidence. It was this behaviour which obstructed collective understanding of HIV, and created so much fear that “AIDS-phobia” has become a recognised term. Susan Sontag famously wrote of the “bizarre fantasies of transmission” that white, heterosexual, non-drug users contrived in their heads that saw them infected with the virus. Despite scientific evidence that HIV could not be transmitted through saliva, gay men in the late-80s still reported seeing glasses they had drank from in bars discarded. Recently, doctors in China identified men so convinced they had contracted HIV — usually after visiting sex workers — that even negative HIV tests failed to convince them of their status. Their guilt made them so anxious that it weakened their immune systems, making them ill and fortifying their convictions. Though the phenomenon may appear almost laughable to some, similar delusions are impacting how we as a society progress through our current health crisis. Belief that government-imposed quarantine strips individuals of their free will has seen crowded demonstrations break out across America. Ministers in the UK have identified a sharp increase in anti-Asian hate crimes. Conspiracies that a Chinese phone company is emitting the virus through telephone wires has seen Eamon Holmes give weight to the theory on national television. All are examples of a fear-based failure to listen to the facts. A mistrust of our own bodies, our own minds, and the intentions of others. Behaviour that undermines scientific evidence and reinforces myth. It is apparent we have learned little from our history of pandemics.
There’s another picture of David Wojnarowicz that I like. In this one, Wojnarowicz lies buried under rubble, submerged in a pool of grey debris save for a face that floats above the gravel. His face, though scrunched to protect dust from entering his eyes, appears calm. Head pointed upwards, mouth slightly open, a hopeful spirit radiates from the picture. It’s the face of a man who refuses to drown in the disorder that surrounds him. We could all learn a lot from David Wojnarowicz.